Dérive: ISEA2012 Interview with François Quévillon

[uds-billboard name=”derive”]

Building on the ISEA2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness (September 19 – 24, 2012) photo essay posts,Temporary New Mexico regional editor Nancy Zastudil has organized ongoing coverage of the symposium with theISEA2012 Insiders, a group of (ISEA2012′s Artistic Director) Andrea Polli‘s University of New Mexico students who attended the event. This is the forth and final interview in a series of posts from the Insiders in conversation with several ISEA2012 artists about their artistic practice, exhibition projects, and overall experience of the symposium.

François Quévillon holds a Master’s degree in visual and media arts from UQAM, was involved with the Interstices research-creation group from 2001 to 2008 and joined Perte de Signal in 2009. His work has been presented in Canada, France, the United States, Lebanon and Brazil.

Larry Heard: Please give me a short biography and include some information about what led to your artwork Dérive.

François Quévillon: I’m an installation and new media artist from Montréal (Québec, Canada). My work explores phenomena of the world and perception through the implementation of processes that are sensitive to the public’s interference and to the environment’s variable conditions. The notions of instability, connectivity and uncertainty are at the center of my research which also examines the effects of network culture and technology on our relation to space, time and between one and other.

I initiated Dérive in April 2010 during the Géographies Variables residency program, a France-Québec exchange program that is mainly oriented on net art but open to other mediums. The first idea I had when I thought about the variable geographies theme was simple and straightforward: to put in relation physical structures which appear to be stable and permanent–architecture and terrain, for instance–with elements that are constantly changing and uncontrollable, for example environmental conditions that determine how we perceive and experience the world and also largely contribute to how we imagine distant locations.

The project was inspired by the growing number of mapping applications that display real-time information, remote monitoring and control, as well as the formal aspect of 3D point clouds generated by LiDAR and photo-based 3D scanning. Dérive connects physical spaces with their virtual representations by continuously updating them with information on their actual environmental conditions. By doing so, it explores the phenomenology of mixed realities and investigates the changing nature of our perception and representation of the world.

LH: Can you describe the experience of Dérive and the components or design of the work for ISEA2012 Albuquerque Machine Wilderness installation at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History?

FQ: The installation invites visitors to explore 3D models of locations in the United States, Canada, and France that are transformed according to live environmental data collected on the Internet. By their positions and movements in the exhibition space, the public interacts with a representation–the appearance and level of recognition of the representation are determined by information on ongoing phenomena. The data transmitted by remote environmental sensors is also sonified.

The 3D point clouds of each location provide millions of fixed XYZ coordinates that are used in a changing virtual space which resembles a dynamic particle system. The display and positions of the points and of the wireframe connecting them are determined by the following environmental information:

Local time : Point size and brightness (relative to sunrise and sunset)
Temperature : Point color
Cloudiness : Point saturation and brightness
Wind : Point displacement reflecting speed and direction
Visibility : Intensity of a depth of field effect and transparency
Humidity : Depth of field focus distance and point sharpness
Precipitation : Random lines drawn from the sky are connected to the ground and points are destabilized.

Dérive [data::simulation] François Quévillon from Perte de Signal on Vimeo.

LH: The mashup of data makes me think of geographic information systems and cartography. In cartography there is usually a legend, scale and north arrow to orient the viewer in the information presented. The absence of these guides enhances a mysterious quality to the work. I enjoyed watching people explore the landscapes as much as my own interactions.

FQ: The installation is meant to be experienced intuitively. The interface to interact with the audiovisual environment is the room. The computer vision system eliminates the need to manipulate an object and multiple individuals can have an affect on the work, sometimes without knowing it.

When a new location appears, its name and coordinates are displayed and it’s introduced in satellite view oriented with the north at the top, similar to most cartographic systems. That familiarity helps to situate the viewer. My objective isn’t to recreate the phenomena occurring in a realist way but to evoke them simply by altering parameters and coordinates of points and lines. For instance, color values referring to temperature and cloudiness are based on psychology of colors and can also evoke thermal imaging. By blurring distant points when visibility is limited, the depth of field calculations calls to mind fog or smog. Several elements like these have little effect individually but their interaction creates complexity and a wide range of results. The sound synthesis and spatialization process works in a similar way.

LH: You arrived in Albuquerque very early to incorporate local sites into your work. Can you tell me about how you normally do this and how Albuquerque was different or unique?

FQ: “Very early” is relative. Considering the time needed to install the work at the museum, I had a little bit more than a week for on-site documentation and to integrate these locations to the work. I prepared the software and as much content as I could before my arrival.

I’ve proceeded differently for every location. Each time the process involves various types of geomatic data, on-site photogrammetry and 3D modeling. I also need to include local weather data feeds to the software.

Many things made my experience in New Mexico unique. The Machine Wilderness theme inspired me to concentrate on human interventions in nature that are related to the region’s specific geography and climate instead of the urban environment.

LH: Where did you focus your attention?

FQ: I was drawn to sites at the junction of the Sandia Mountains and Albuquerque. I included the flood control system at the Foothills. The site offers a view of the city, is in good part surrounded by hills and there’s also a water tank. The arroyo has an odd concrete structure and its presence is due to geographic, topographic, climatic and weather issues. I had spotted it on Google Maps and didn’t understand what was its use. Upon suggestion from staff at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, I visited the site and once I arrived I knew that it was exactly what I was looking for.

Also, since I begun Dérive over two years ago, its deserted aesthetic made me think of ghost towns. New Mexico seemed like a good place to document isolated sites where ruins blend into the landscape and signs of human presence slowly disappear. The town of Golden, located close to Albuquerque, with its abandoned mine, old buildings and some barely recognizable traces of structures, was a good place to investigate this.

LH: What did you do to prepare before you got here?

FQ: I identified areas using a variety of tools and online documentation, did some 3D modeling from satellite imagery, and assembled a base model with different types of geographic information such as Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission data from the USGS, OpenStreetMap data, etc. Because this hybrid map covers over 3000 square miles, it gave me freedom to work on a large perimeter and was in my head while I was driving around. When I arrived in New Mexico to continue working on the models, the spaces were strangely familiar because of all the data I had been exposed to and manipulated, and also because of the television series Breaking Bad.

LH: Yeah, I have still yet to see an episode of Breaking Bad. One of the more popular tourist activities here is a Breaking Bad Trolley tour.

FQ: I must confess that I searched for some locations where the series was shot! I ended up using only a fraction of the model I had prepared of the region. For ISEA2012, photogrammetry was the last step. In most of the previous locations, on-site documentation was the first and I would add geomatic data after. This allowed me to improvise and discover the spaces while wandering around.

LH: Is this process related to the title?

FQ: The title refers to different ideas and elements of the work. It does call to mind Guy Debord’s Théorie de la dérive and psychogeography–how the architectural and geographical environment influence the behavior and emotions of individuals. When I started this project in Orléans, France, I was wandering in the city while taking pictures that were used for photogrammetry. The resulting 3D model is a map of the paths I took in the city during several days.

Many other elements lead me to choose this title. While exploring Dérive, the public doesn’t precisely control the virtual camera but rather has an influence on it. This influence should even diminish in the future because one of my objectives is to upgrade the software so that environmental data will have an effect on the virtual camera’s position, movements, and stability. The title is also related to the unpredictable nature of the processes defining the work and the fact that they are in a state of constant change. Also, I see Dérive as a permanent work in progress, and it’s evolution involves a part of drifting… I don’t know exactly where it will lead me.

LH: What were some impressions of Albuquerque when you first arrived and drove around?

FQ: First, that I had to drive around. I probably would’ve managed to do plenty of things without a car but it certainly would’ve been difficult to experience all that Albuquerque and its surroundings have to offer. One thing that’s for sure is that the local elements I integrated would’ve been completely different.

In relation to the car culture and the vastness of the space, I had the impression that the city was mostly developing itself horizontally, downtown being an exception of course, and this horizontality contrasts with the Sandia Mountains. I also noted that the architecture reflected the cultural diversity of Albuquerque, the heterogeneity of landscapes at close range, the importance of local food, solar power, water harvesting and recycling systems.

As I mentioned before, what struck me was the sensation of knowing the space, the road network, the relief of the territory, and that was certainly due to the time I had spent assembling a 3D puzzle of the region before my arrival. This echoed some ideas behind Dérive about how technology is changing our perception of the world. Of course, being physically present provided a different feel of the space than its mediated experience. I noticed the brightness of sunlight, the smell of roasting chile in the air, the significant differences of temperature between downtown and the Sandia Peak, between day and night, the effects of altitude and dryness.

LH: Ah, the smell of chile roasting is one of my favorite things about Albuquerque during late summer and fall. What are some of the other sites that are in the software?

FQ: Orléans and Lyon in France, Montréal and Sherbrooke in Canada; New York City is the other location in the United States.

LH: Watching you fine tune the projection and sensor suggested a strong theatrical element to the work. Can you tell me a little about this process?

FQ: The relation between the physical space, the projected image and sonic environment is different each time I present the installation. Many parameters need to be taken into consideration. For example, the delimitation of the interaction area, the amplitude of the system’s reaction to different behaviors and multiple persons interacting simultaneously, the perception of sound in a context where the public is moving and has an impact on the generated sound as well as its spatialization, etc. There is also the possibility of unexpected elements interfering with the computer vision system. Sometimes they’ll have a pleasantly surprising effect on the work.

LH: I like the placement of the piece in a room in total darkness separated from the rest of the exhibition. This total immersion places the viewer more completely in each location in the piece.

FQ: People working at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and the ISEA2012 team did a great job preparing the space and determining the whole picture of the exhibition. The immersive quality provided by the room works well. I also appreciate how it resonates with ideas and issues addressed by other pieces in the museum, such as surveillance, data representation, time, landscape, environmental dependance, difference in repetition, etc.

Dérive would fit perfectly in a 360-degree projection dome but immersion isn’t a very important element to me. In September 2011 it was presented outdoors in a public space in Sherbrooke, Quebec. What was interesting in that context was that when people were interacting with the model of Sherbrooke, they were experiencing approximately the same environmental conditions that defined the appearance of the city’s representation. The causes and effects were easier to understand and these conditions had an important impact on the accessibility and experience of the work. For instance, think of sunlight, a storm or cold weather. Microphones captured ambient sounds which also influenced the visuals.

It’s stimulating to present Dérive in different contexts and to work on finding a balance between putting the emphasis on a direct relation with the conditions of the environment where the installation is presented and an immersive space which isolates it from the “real” world. I hope that visitors to the Albuquerque Museum view the city’s model can make the connection between what they experience and the conditions outside.

LH: The other day I was looking at the work and it was very windy at most of the sites. Some of the images made beautiful long trails of light behind the architecture. The first day the work was up and running, there was rain in France. For me, precipitation is the most visually dynamic element in the software. However, the mountains and color for the two locations in New Mexico were very different than the other locations.

FQ: The difference between maximum and minimum elevations around the Sandia Mountains is greater than at the other sites, except maybe Lyon which is located between the Alps and the Massif Central–the relief there is also impressive but the mountains were less prominent and accessible to me during my stay, so I concentrated on the part of Lyon that forms a peninsula where the Saone and Rhone rivers converge. The topography surrounding the Sandia Mountains is one of the elements that I focused on. I had the occasion to experience the difference of temperature between downtown Albuquerque and Sandia Peak. The relationship between elevation and temperature translates in 3D models that display a wider range of colors. Combined with generally sunny weather, these colors will often be more saturated than at the other places.

The 9AM to 5PM opening hours of the Albuquerque Museum also has an impact on our experience of the installation. Local time in France is 8 hours ahead of New Mexico. To view detailed point clouds of Lyon and Orleans the public has to visit the museum in the morning. Except for elements that the virtual camera will get close to, only a wireframe connecting a few points will be visible after sunset.

The New York – Montreal – Sherbrooke triangle can also display some interesting phenomena over time. Since these cities are relatively close to each other, a weather system affecting one of them can affect another a few hours later. This can be estimated by watching how wind speed and direction is translated in the models. Paying attention to some elements allows us to discover patterns over time. Prevailing winds coming from the southwest in Manhattan, for example.

The three-and-a-half month length of the ISEA2012 exhibition, which began at the end of summer and concludes during winter, will allow the public to witness a wide range of changes over this period.

LH: After ISEA2012 concludes in Albuquerque, you were planning on doing some traveling around New Mexico. Some of us locals gave you lists of our favorite places. Did you get to see White Sands?

FQ: I did and we came across some interesting sites on our way there and back–the Elephant Butte Dam, the Spaceport, the Trinity site region, the Very Large Array, just to name a few. This short road trip continued to feed my reflections on the Machine Wilderness theme. We arrived at the White Sands just before sunset and spent the evening lit by the full moon. We came back the day after at noon and the brightness of the white sand dunes was almost blinding. It was a very hot day but they evoked a snow covered landscape. Hiking this gypsum desert along with the sound of jet engines was a memorable experience.

LH: Did you stop at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos?

FQ: I stopped and walked on the bridge. It would’ve been great to go down the Rio Grande Gorge but I didn’t spend much time in Taos, unfortunately. I was there to visit the Earthships and for the other activities of ISEA2012 Taos Day. This region seems to be filled with creative people.

LH: Your work makes me think of The Lightning Field by Walter De Maria. Did you think about this work while you were here?

FQ: Yes. I knew it was in New Mexico but only discovered exactly where the day after a trip to the Acoma Pueblo. I was close to the site without knowing it.

LH: Wouldn’t it be cool if those poles had environmental sensors on or near them?

FQ: I haven’t experienced the work but for me the main interest of The Lightning Field resides in an on-site experience over a long period of time; being physically and mentally present for at least half a day. The idea of an array of poles with environmental sensors reminds me of Steve Heimbecker‘s Wind Array Cascade Machine and the series of installations related to it.

LH: How many locations would you like to have available in the software?

FQ: A few more places would be enough. Diversity is more important than quantity. This variety could concern the location’s climate, geography, architecture or other specificities. Places in Asia, Africa, North or South Poles would certainly be interesting. By excluding on-site documentation, maybe even a location on Mars could be envisioned. Terrain data sets are available, all that would be needed is a live feed of its environmental conditions. At the end of 2012 I will be in São Paulo. Considering the size and complexity of the city’s configuration, I’m expecting quite a challenge over there.

My main objective regarding Dérive is to continue developing the software with Édouard Lanctôt-Benoit. As I mentioned earlier, that would include having environmental data affect the behavior of the virtual camera, pushing further sound synthesis and spatialization, augmenting its spectrum of variability, integrating other types of live information: seismic activity, radiation, atmospheric pollutants or mapping geo-localized traffic conditions for instance. I’d like to focus on the way through which data is visualized, sonified and explored rather than adding hundreds of locations. Using archives of information that cover large periods of time could also allow us to discover correlations between phenomena, patterns revealing the specificities of each location and how conditions changed on a global scale.

LH: I thought someplace in the midwestern United States could be a great place to have in the software. The extreme weather in places like Kansas could be interesting to see and record, for example a blizzard, large hail or a tornado.

FQ: Thanks for the suggestions. Visualization and sonification of unusual phenomena is also something I’m looking into for further development of Dérive.

Dérive | François Quévillon from Perte de Signal on Vimeo.


Images and videos courtesy of the artist.

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